Valorant

Richard Lewis: Valorant – The Esports Review

by Richard Lewis

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In the first part of my Valorant review I focused on the gameplay, but now I want to consider whether Riot’s first-person shooter has a long-term future as an esport.

I’ve been covering esports since 2005, and have seen many games with great potential flop, whilst bad games inexplicably grow. There are consistent lessons that can be learned about what makes a successful esport and I’ll be applying them to Valorant in the second part of my review.

Valorant is still in closed beta and is being updated at a rapid pace. What is true today almost certainly won’t be true tomorrow. Some of this review probably has parts that were out of date the second my fingers left the keyboard. I’ll try and update what I can, but if it happens to be out of date by the time you’re going to read it, it’s staying in. Use your judgment.

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Riot Games
Valorant's full release date is set for June 2.

The Core Elements Of An Esport

So, in no particular order, here’s what an esport needs to be successful. Let’s start with a fairly obvious one; deep, competitive gameplay. The game design absolutely has to include mechanics that have a significant distance between the skill floor, where everyone starts, and the skill ceiling, where only the elite get to. 

This can be built into a game in a variety of ways, but to keep things simple, let’s just focus on in-game abilities. The truly great competitive games recognize that the difference in skill when using ability can’t just come down to a personal trait, such as reaction time, although that absolutely should be a component. More important is how an ability can be applied in the moment, and how speed of imagination and clarity of thought in pressure situations create game-altering outcomes.

Think Dota, for example. A new player knows that the character Pudge has a hook he can throw to bring a player to him and set up a kill opportunity. Landing hooks is hard. A new player might be able to land one from fog of war on a standing target. The more you play, the more you learn the timing of the hook, the length of it as it levels up, and how items can augment it.

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Over time, you learn not only to factor in opponent’s movement to the hooks you throw, but high level players can predict flash moves, or combine it with other heroes abilities to create insanely powerful outcomes. A great Pudge can win a pub game by themselves, though a terrible one will almost certainly cost you the same game. There’s a reason the character is so iconic and in many ways the design is a perfect encapsulation of what you should be thinking about when making an esports title.

By the same token, if your game is well balanced, there will be counters and outplay potential from other abilities. So, to use Dota as an example again, if the Pudge hook was an ability that had no counters, whoever picked him would be almost guaranteed to win, and it would make the requirement to learn any other character somewhat moot. However, Dota has a range of characters that have abilities that, again, when correctly applied both conceptually and mechanically, are more than capable of hindering a Pudge from taking over a game.

This isn’t just important for making the game enjoyable. It enables those who play and those who watch to determine who is better. Who can consistently apply an ability optimally? Who possesses the game knowledge to counter those abilities either through abilities of their own, correct itemisation, or strategy? Failing these qualities, which players have the ‘get out of jail free’ card of incredible reaction time and hand-eye coordination? Congratulations, if your game can spark a debate like this, you probably have laid the foundations for a successful esport.

Valve
A game needs to be well-balanced in order to make it into an esport.

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By the same token, an esport has to include components that rewards repeated play, whether it’s memorization of spawn timings, map lay-out, headshot angles, environmental interactions, boosts, or whatever else is relevant. The competitor that practices often should be able to build up a wealth of information, much of it just small details, that will help single them out from a newer player or one who elects not to pay as much attention during their competitive experience.

I’d also add if the game empowers you enough through all of this to make it feel like you are personally doing these things, then it has a huge advantage. When you score a goal, or throw a 60 yard pass, or dunk or someone, you did the thing and it feels good. Having input be connected to your real-life actions definitely enhances the game’s capacity to be embraced as an esport. Think auto-battlers for an example of a competitive gaming pursuit that just doesn’t really cut it when it comes to the esports label, despite ticking some of these other boxes.

The other component doesn’t involve the competitors at all. The emergence of streaming platforms helped solidify a point that only a handful of esports developers understood in the golden era, namely that your game also needs to be watchable and include tools that make spectating easy. It’s no coincidence that games remaining in the top tier of esports embraced this concept while aspiring esports that have flopped have failed to grasp the importance that viewers play in the modern landscape. 

Forget metrics to show to shareholders, and instead look at it purely from the perspective of grass roots. Maybe I am a player and maybe I’m not very good, but I’m not going to quit any time soon. How do I get better? The first port of call will be watching better players. How do I do that? Tournament broadcasts are great for excitement and celebrating the best, but outside of a handful of moments do little to help players appreciate what separates pros from amateurs.

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Now if there’s a way to watch a demo file, or a live feed purely from a player’s perspective, this is a way to see all the little moments of mundane perfection that go towards making someone the best. If your game is good, it will create the thirst for knowledge. It’s up to you as a developer to have the tools in place that enable tomorrow’s professionals to quench it.

Still, you can hit all of these and even make a game that the average player would describe as “fun” and just simply not make it as an esport. There’s many other components, but this article will already run long as I lay out my rationale for if Valorant will make the grade or not.

Valorant As An Esport

Applying those lessons to Valorant, you can see immediately where the game succeeds in laying great foundations for esports success. The gunplay is the first thing players will get to grips with in their minds. Guns handle differently, some can be used situationally, even having enough money to get the gun you want at key times is something you will have to learn. In my game review, I spoke a lot about the guns essentially copying Counter-Strike, down to in-game price and recoil patterns, but over time that has changed – and I’m not sure if for the better.

It was always clear to me that Riot wanted the game to be something immediately familiar and then, as players came filtering in, they would slowly make it more of its own thing. It’s a solid strategy, especially when the marketing was very clearly aimed at disgruntled Counter-Strike players and their imagined grievances. In doing this though, it does feel that they are inadvertently lowering the skill ceiling.

Valve
Riot are trying to rival CSGO with Valorant.

Counter-Strike players understand that recoil control is as much a skill as the tap-tap crispness of one bullet aim. Indeed, the way the game works, it is optimal to use a spray to ensure maximum damage to the enemy. I still think the spraying mechanics in the game, with the long recoil reset time and random recoil patterns after so many bullets, hamper it having leap-out-your-seat moments where one player in a chokepoint turns a round. 

This in itself wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but if you are going to try and emulate the greats then understand why so many of us think they are great in the first place. The iconic AWP in Counter-Strike, amusingly called the “Operator” (OP) in Valorant, is iconic because in the hands of a player with pristine movement, aim, and the ability to quick-scope, it can defy the odds stacked against it. 

Currently, the one-shot kill sniper has a strange sludginess to it. I’ve seen 1v5 aces, of course, but they have to happen in a certain prescribed way, usually by bad players running slowly one at a time, peeking at stupid moments, or lining up for a considerate collateral. This feels true with very few exceptions. 

If this is a deliberate choice to make it so better players can’t just absolutely dominate the weak, you’re lowering the overall skill ceiling of your game and defying the fundamental “git gud” philosophy that is the beating heart of every esport. It’s great for casuals and pub games, but the CS players you’ve brought over are going to feel like something isn’t quite right and over time that sentiment will build.

Speed is something I’m divided on. I like the way it has a slower movement speed as it feels closer to the shooters I played in my youth. Equally, that slow speed, especially combined with the brutal tagging in the game, does make it feel that certain skills aren’t worth bringing over or developing if you want to be a high level player. Overall, I like that it punishes poor positioning and missing shots by making escape impossible, but it also makes certain positions and playstyles hugely advantageous, especially to the defensive team.

The game currently also feels incredibly favored to the defensive side, and there’s a few considerations I don’t think Riot factored in. Counter-Strike worked because it presents two teams with different problems – one has to plant and defend a bomb, the other has to stop them – AND with different tools to achieve this goal. On the early maps, defending was easier for the Counter-Terrorists, but they had to face a gun only available to the terrorists – the AK-47, which is a one-shot headshot kill. Suddenly, peeking around corners is dangerous for a CT, and yet, you need to do it for information, otherwise you might face a full, unstoppable bomb-site execute without time for your teammates to come and assist you, and the round will be over.

Even just that subtle difference creates enough leverage for the offensive side to have an edge if they play optimally. In Valorant, everyone has access to all of the same tools, down to weapons and abilities of the heroes that are available to them. As such, in the current meta at least, playing the defensive side is a lot easier. As the esports scene is slowly established, this might change, and maybe the game is actually perfectly balanced. 

I don’t play for a team nor ever will, and can only speak from my perspective. For the average pub player, the offensive side will most likely be a slog as people bait each other for kills without any cohesion and run between objective sites like headless chickens until you can maybe identify a weak link and isolate them. Even the tournament play I watched, with aspiring pros who had come over from other disciplines, had elements of this. There’s one map that kind of breaks this, and not exactly in a good way, but we’ll talk about that later.

Riot Games
Riot needs to make changes to the maps.

 A lot of the abilities are so centered on defence, it compounds the issue. Have an ability that shows where people are on the offensive side? Cool, I guess. They are probably somewhere you should smoke off anyway. Compare that to a defensive team knowing where you are all grouped up with 20 seconds on the clock. Or what about the broken-forever Sage? A 45-    second wall? Guess I can use that to boost or stop a flank offensively. It wins rounds on its own defensively.

There needs to be some tinkering, and I don’t know what direction Riot needs to go in. Introducing some side-specific guns has been done with success in other games, so maybe that’s something they can do but then balancing around that will be a new challenge. Maybe they can go a more complex route and balance every ability in the game so the ones that are clearly overpowered defensively suddenly aren’t as good, but can still play a part when used offensively. Maybe some abilities need to be outright taken out, or maybe it’s just because the maps absolutely suck that it feels stacked this way.

Regardless, to end on a positive note, there’s more than enough here for a hierarchy of players to establish itself, along with room for innovation, strategy, and mechanical excellence. The decision to not come out of the gate with too many different characters shows an intelligent restraint and will help with balancing, although Riot’s record of releasing busted new heroes in League of Legends is the stuff of the legends the game references (if you were there for release Xin Zhao you will never forget it). 

While it achieves the goal of being more welcoming to newer players than any MOBA or competitive FPS title on the market, there’s still nowhere to hide in terms of carrying your weight. Don’t know what your character does, can’t aim or control recoil, or don’t know map layout and callouts? You just f**ked your team. How you feel about those facts will define whether or not you can hang in an esport.

Game Balance

When I first saw another class-based shooter with MOBA elements, I said a silent prayer for the members of the development team at Riot that would have to balance the game. At Overwatch, they have mostly waved the white flag and got around a lack of balance via picks and bans. With such a small character pool to choose from in these early stages of Valorant, that really isn’t a viable option, but, with a few exceptions that I will come to, the balance of is mostly solid.

Conceptually, because “ultimate” abilities have to be earned, they aren’t some ever-present terror to be thinking about. Visual feedback on the UI shows you when opponents have them, and you can factor that into your decision-making process for the round. In general, the average ability that players can purchase represents some form of utility, a type of vision obscuring “grenade,” an ability that temporarily reveals positions, or something that temporarily blinds an opponent. These are all great and make for a game where you can have those outplay moments that every good competitive game factors in. They also add tactical depth offensively and defensively. Those concerned the abilities would overshadow the core gameplay needn’t worry.

Then there’s Sage. When the characters and their abilities were first revealed, I went over them on a livestream. My gut feeling was that she would be unbelievably over-powered based on her kit. Even in the game’s early stages, the high level players were complaining about Raze because of her rocket-launcher ultimate that instantly kills anything it lands next to. I have to congratulate Riot, as Sage being the most broken character in any class based shooter in the history of gaming is quite an achievement. 

Riot Games
Sage is ridiculously broken.

Forget my views on quick healing being antithetical to competitive shooting because of how it makes health trading meaningless and makes accurate calls impossible (“they’re hit for 113 but maybe Sage healed them…”). And forget how being able to resurrect a teammate at key moments will guarantee rounds that could be a coin toss are now yours, and that a 45-second long wall ability that cannot be boosted over or broken silently essentially can shut down executes and win 1v1s. Oh, and forget having two slows that shut down a rush instantly and make you move as if you’re being tagged by gunfire. There may be a place for these abilities in this game, although I’d rather some weren’t there. 

But the fact that ALL of this is offered by ONE character is the stupidest design choice in this entire game. It’s madness. At the time of writing, you simply have to have a Sage on your team, and the game is generally decided by which one is better. Don’t pick one and your opponent does? You lose. Before the game comes out of closed beta, this hero needs to be reworked completely, like Mercy was in Overwatch, or deleted.

Were it not for Sage, the premise of Cypher would get a lot of critique from me instead. A big part of a competitive FPS is outthinking your opponent, and timing flanks for maximum damage. His tripwires render that skill somewhat meaningless. Even an obvious tripwire does the job because they have to be shot, reveal your position, and provide a sound-cue. It takes little skill to use this ability, and yet it negates much higher. They should implement some type of punishment system for Cyphers whose tripwires get shot – either it does damage, or it temporarily stuns him.

At the other end of the scale, Viper could use a buff. When the reveal video of her ability came out, everyone was like, 'Oh lawd, look at that broken s**t!' but in reality, it never panned out like that at all. At the time of writing, she feels like the weakest character all round. Being able to consistently and safely plant the spike simply isn’t enough advantage to justify including her in your team, especially when others have similar abilities. She’s primed for a rework, as her kit, with the fuel mechanic behind it, just isn’t all that great.

Omen feels a bit weak, too. He’s in a weird spot where it feels like his kit was designed with offence in mind, but all the other factors just make defending too strong. Perhaps when other aspects of the game are balanced he will come into his own, but currently he is one of those characters that doesn’t seem to do much when called upon.

Other than that, most characters feel well rounded, and that is great work from Riot. You can learn the basics of most characters after a few matches, and no matter who you pick they make a solid contribution provided you play them well. There are some that are effective without being mechanically intensive, and there are those that actually are a detriment in the hands of players who aren’t skilled enough to use them. This is an esport functioning exactly as it should, as it feeds into the skill ceiling concept without excluding anyone. The balance team deserves to be recognized for this because many class-based shooters haven't come out of the gates with characters this tightly clustered together in terms of parity.

Map Design

Time for the elephant in the room – the maps. They're awful. I’ll outline why in a moment, but let’s just explain why it is important. You can have all of the successful elements of an esport in place, but if the environment they are applied to is either not fit for purpose or actually antithetical to the competitive elements the game establishes at its core, then it is likely to fail.

Take the porting of a Team Fortress Classic map over to Team Fortress 2 in the form of 2fort, for example. That map was widely despised by the TF2 community for a variety of reasons: the map was cramped with brutal chokepoints for the offensive team, its defensive layout meant that sentries and snipers could just rack up kills with little risk, the water… Well, go and Google what a pyroshark is. And because the way the game is designed means that you must play both sides, it would often lead to dull stalemates that were exercises in tedium rather than tactics. Fun for trolling and unlocking certain achievements, but as a competitive map, an absolute bust. Now imagine all the maps at launch for TF2 were like this.

Valve
Maps in an esport game need to be great, otherwise there's no point.

In general, this first wave of maps have fallen into a trap that I’ve seen a few times. They focus on chokepoints and pathways to duels, they give defenders – who, as we’ve established already have an advantage – lots of nooks and crannies to hide in and around, they are claustrophobic and restrictive in how much you can move around on either side, and even implementations of map-specific gimmicks like zip-lines and elevation don’t do enough to change it up. Despite that, the maps seem so insanely convoluted, containing lots of landmarks but ones that all fulfill the same function. On a creative level they are very uninspired. Equally from a mechanical perspective, they actually restrict the freedom that players want to have when it comes to using their characters.

I could see these maps being utilized in a tutorial because they are so basic and obvious. Like, “smoke here to stop the sniper” or “flash round this corner because defenders always hold this spot” and so on. If these maps are the ones that are going to make up the bulk of the gameplay upon release, it is going to get stale very quickly for players and spectators alike.

Haven is the worst by a long distance. I don’t know if the idea came from Xzibit’s “Pimp My Ride” (we heard you like bombsites so we put a bombsite between your bombsites so you can access a bombsite while on another bombsite), but the gimmick of an additional bombsite adds absolutely nothing to the game. Interestingly this is the one map where if you can get a plant as the offensive team, you should automatically win provided you have equal or greater numbers.

The map is so vast in terms of distance, it has to be covered by defenders and with it, the amount of corners to be checked that if you get a plant on A, there is probably no point in even going for it if your remaining defensive players are on C. Naturally, vice versa applies. The mid area is a disaster of design with just so many stupid tight corners to clean out offensively. If you cut out a third of this map, you might have something to work with, but for me it is the worst one by some distance.

Strangely enough, the community seems to agree that Split is the worst map. Not for me, but I see the arguments. After all, the mid area has the same ridiculously convoluted layout but doesn’t have a bombsite there. But guess why you can’t ignore it? Because Split wants to defy the conventional wisdom of having two access paths to a bombsite as well as some sort of mid area to control, and instead has one access point to each bombsite with the mid area, that remember defenders have all the advantages for being the other access path. This essentially allows defenders to rotate without any risks, unless the offensive team can afford some sort of delayed lurker to push from behind, which based on what needs to be expended just to get on a site, they probably can’t. So we are 0/2 for maps right now. They are both objectively terrible. 

Riot Games
Haven and Split both need a lot of improvement.

The third and easily the best option is Bind. It does suffer from some of the same issues, but they feel mitigated due to the B site actually feeling like an execute can consistently work on it if people hit their shots. There are less points for the offensive team to clean out, and very obvious rotation paths. A site is harder, but still viable provided you have the tools. Crucially, what makes the map interesting is the teleporters that can be used for outplay and fast rotations. I’d still make some changes, but out of the three this is the only map I would want to see survive come launch day on June 2.

If this criticism feels brutal, I would just say this. Counter-Strike didn’t even launch with the game mode that would go on to define it, and the early maps were awful too. No-one talks about de_fang or de_railroad, and hopefully in a few years, that will be the fate for the current iterations of Split and Haven. They can be reworked and salvaged, but I feel a fundamental shift in design is going to be required in order for anyone to even admit fault. Currently, the maps are the worst thing about the game and will be its biggest hurdle to clear if it wants esports success.

A Competitive Future

The best esports have a healthy grassroots scene as well as the pro game. For me, League of Legends was at its best when when Riot Games worked with partners such as MLG and DreamHack to create tournaments that captured people’s imaginations and helped the game blow up. Once the game had achieved its popularity, however, Riot took the game in-house, offering 'roadshow'-style tournaments to tournament organizers which had taken risks to support it... I didn’t like that. I believe in long term rewards for partners who take risks alongside you.

I see some similarities with what is being proposed currently, and it does make me wonder if history is about to repeat itself. Riot have already said that the game can be used for tournaments provided those running it adhere to their guidelines. Still, they have at least had the good sense this time around not to single out any competitors games, much like they did with Dota 2.

I will also give them credit in the sense that they are willing to let these companies grow an ecosystem for them, a move that will ensure a healthy amount of competition and value in having a grassroots scene. Activision Blizzard didn’t and still don’t care for any of these things, and currently we are watching their Overwatch League wobble like a game of Jenga being played by two drunks.

Riot might have been ruthless in how they built the LCS and other regions, but there’s no getting away from the fact it is the most successful league of its kind. The open circuit Counter-Strike uses might be the ecosystem I prefer, but I can tell you it has a whole bunch of problems with it, ones that manifest every six months or so as one of the many stakeholders make a power play.

Riot have a real opportunity to take their game and build a rich and storied league, featuring teams and players from around the world, and with players who already bring their own mythology from other titles. If done right it will be compelling. I think we’re about 18 months away from it even being a viability, and there will be a lot of bumps in the road. Still, having watched so many forced attempts at creating esports by developers who view it as just another way to make money, I’ll say Valorant is the first game in a while I’m confident will stick the landing and still be around years from now.